Saturday, January 15, 2011

Why Don't Writers Get to Make Album Cuts?

Scott D. Parker

Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” has a couple. Genesis, The Black Keys, Radiohead, and Diana Krall have a few. KISS has them all over the place. And, yes (sigh), I’ll even admit that Chicago and Bruce Springsteen have a few.

What am I talking about? Album cuts. Those throwaway songs musicians create whose sole purpose is to fill out an otherwise anemic album. Don’t get me wrong: these album cuts have passionate fans. If you dig deep into the fandom of any particular musical act--especially one that has a long career--you will find those folks who so very much want their favorite band to play the random, obscure song from the third LP back when there were such a thing as LPs.

But, at the time, the artists are looking at a roster of five great tunes they know will make it big on the radio. If they release five songs, that’s an EP. They can’t get away with that. They need to release a LP, a long playing album, charge more, and make lots more money.

Take “Thriller” for example. It’s staggering to realize that seven(!) tracks made it to the radio, all of which went to the top 10. If a song was released as a single from that LP, it did well. Little does the casual listener realize that there are nine tracks on the album. Can anyone name either song?

Didn’t think so.

How does this link up with writing? Simple. Why do musicians get to bloat their output and writers don’t?

Or do they?

Writers can’t simply create a sub-thread just for the heck of it. Think about it: imagine “Mystic River” with a subplot involving the daily life of the batboy at Fenway Park or “The Da Vinci Code” with a cameo by Langdon’s graduate assistant. The simple fact with a book is that the author can’t insert anything that isn’t cogent to the plot. Even the most bloated novel has to stick to the point.

I’ll grant you that some authors suffer from Research-itis. This is a common malady where, simply because in the course of research for a book the author learned a fact, he feels compelled to “share” with his readers this little nugget even if it doesn’t apply to the plot. Michael Crichton, for all of his bravado with fast-paced plots, dumped a ton of information on the reader. I remember reading his books and seeing lots of white space on a page. Cool. Dialogue and action. Then, after a page turn, there’d be wall-to-wall text. Great. Here comes the lecture. But, even if we skip over the lecture parts, the information is probably germane to the story. Thus, to me, it falls out of the realm of “album cut.”

What do you think? Are we writers allowed, in some form or fashion, to have album cuts in our books?

Drink of the Week: Hot Dr. Pepper
Winter finally hit here in Houston. We had temperatures in the upper 20s and lower 30s. That’s serious down here. And what better way to warm up the insides than hot Dr. Pepper. Don’t screw up your face. Give it a go. The official Dr. Pepper website has the simple recipe: DP and lemon and a heat source. It’s better than you might think.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Joe Gores

By Russel D McLean

I wish I could have a more cheerful post after the start of 2011, but I couldn’t just avoid the fact that this week crime writer Joe Gores died. I only read two Gores books in my life – and I have some more on my list – but to me he will always be the man who wrote HAMMETT. Shortly after I started digging crime fiction and in particular those old hardboiled books by Hammett and Chandler, my dad pressed a book into my hands. Told me I had to read it.

The books was HAMMETT by Joe Gores. I wasn’t sure. It was one of those books that melded fact with fiction, that took a real life figure and put them in the midst of fictional events. Not in an Ellroy kind of way – no one except Ellroy could do that – but in the way of an entertaining thriller that took its inspiration from some kind of reality. It sounded a little trite, if I’m honest, but my dad was so enthusiastic I cracked the spine. And discovered an incredible novel. If it wasn’t true, I wished it was. I loved Hammett as written by Gores, the hardboiled detective who still tried to make a living as a pulp writer. It should have felt false, even though it was true, and yet Gores pulled off the enviable trick of making you want to believe that it was all true, even the bits that had to be fiction.

Hammett was a perfect book, and I still have that copy on my book shelves. Over a decade and a half since dad “loaned” it to me. So if he’s reading this, I guess he’ll be coming up to reclaim it sometime soon…

But Gores proved to me what an incredible talent he was a couple of years ago with the release in 2009 of SPADE AND ARCHER. This “prequel” to Hammett’s THE MALTESE FALCON should have stunk of parody and been a book that was surplus to requirements. There was no way anyone should have been able to capture Hammett’s voice and yet still ensure the book felt written for a modern market.

When the name Gores was attached, I should have had more faith. It was a blinder of a novel that at once recalled Hammett’s style and yet felt evolved from there, as thought Hammett himself had continued writing and evolving his style. It was an engaging and brilliant novel with enough of a wink at the legacy of the original book to satisfy, but never allowed itself to tip over into parody.

Gores was an enormous talent. For those two books alone he should be remembered.
The little I have learned of Gorres over this past week has been intriguing and astounding. Like Hammett, Gorres, it seems, was a private eye in younger days which perhaps explains his affinity to Hammett, the two of them having this connection. It also explains the level of conviction that ran through his work. The books felt real, felt accurate perhaps because they were so and not just in terms of procedure but of emotion, too.

If you haven’t read Gores I beseech you to seek out his work. In particular HAMMETT or SPADE AND ARCHER. He was a major talent and his work should, and I believe will, be remembered.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Myth of 1,000 Words

One of the things you see a lot of, when you read author interviews, is how they all write 1,000 words every day.

That's true.

Sort of.

I believe most authors, when drafting, strive for 1,000 words per day. I know I do. Sometimes I get there, sometimes I fall well short, sometimes I go over. But the average is 1,000 words. And that's a success.

But when I get to revision, that's where it gets interesting. Maybe other writers can enlighten me, but I doubt most authors write 1,000 words a day when revising. For me, revising is scattershot.

Write a character sketch here. Outline a scene here. Cut 3,000 words here. Add 50. That's four days of successful revising for me, sometimes. I don't ever have a word goal when I'm revising.

I just want to move forward. Sometimes I get 2 steps forward only to go 3 back the next day.

So, yeah, writing 1,000 words a day is key--when you're drafting. But when you're revising, all bets are off.

What do you think?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Leaving Out The Hard Part

John McFetridge

Over the Christmas holidays I spent some very good times with my wife’s family in rural Ontario and I had a good talk about writing with my brother-in-law. He’s a United Church Minister and he writes (and delivers) a very good sermon.

In an offhand way he said, “You’ve got to hide the hard part in the middle.”

I asked him what he meant and he explained it’s all that stuff that people need to hear but don’t want to, all that stuff about sacrifice, and personal responsibility and doing what we all know we need to do – even if it’s hard. Maybe especially if it’s hard.

And I thought that’s true of any kind of creative writing. You need the hard part, but you do have to hide it a little.

Good examples, I think of dealing with the hard part, are shows like The Sopranos and The Wire and Deadwood.

You can like the characters in those shows, you can laugh with them and even hope that things go well for them but the shows never let you forget that they’re sociopaths – dangerous anti-social people who have gone too far to be redeemed (my brother-in-law may disagree with that ;).

On The Sopranos I always liked Paulie. The loyal soldier, the straight-shooter (literally and figuratively) the old friend. He did seem like a guy who would be fun to hang out with – except he’s a dangerous sociopath. He robbed an old lady, a friend of his mother’s and he killed her. Outside a restaurant a waiter came after him compaining about a lousy tip and he killed him. These aren’t other ‘soldiers,’ these aren’t other people ‘in the game.’ They’re victims of Paulie’s selfishness, greed and survival instincts.

But leaving out that side of Paulie would be leaving out the hard part, the part that makes me uncomfortable when I laugh along with him on other situations. Leaving that stuff out would let me, the viewer, off the hook too easy.

I had a couple of paragraphs in here about how I couldn’t get into the movies of Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith because I feel those guys leave out the hard parts, but that would just sound like sour grapes.

Maybe they do deal with the hard parts well enough or maybe it’s not even that important to put in the hard parts. Can stories – especially crime fiction - be fun and violent and pretty much consequence-free?

I don’t know. I just know writing the hard part is hard.

Even for those of us who love writing as much as this guy.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

We Make Our Own Movies

By Jay Stringer


Couple things up front today. Firstly i'd like to take another chance to thank everyone who took part in the flash fiction challenge. It was a great collection of stories. Some of them were from established 'friends of the site' and some were from first time callers, but they all added up to something fresh and interesting over the holiday season.

Don't worry, we haven't forgotten the FREE STUFF. That's what we'll be sorting out at the next DSD tree house meeting, and you'll be hearing more about it soon.

Second up I'd like to point you in the direction of a new podcast involving another friend of the site (See all these friends? Sheeesh. It's like I was never arrested.) Paul Montgomery is part of a rotating panel of writers over at the deceptionists, and the show is now on its second episode.
They're still feeling out the shows shape and form, but what more do you need to know than it involves four very different writers coming together to discuss the craft. Click on over and check it out. Ask for babs.

(I did the Babs joke twice in 2010. How many times will I drop it into 2011?)

Aaaaaaand while I'm talking podcasts, I listened to an interview with David Seidler about The Kings Speech. I haven't seen the film yet to comment on it's quality, but the interview was a great listen. Mr Seidler has a fascinating story to tell about how he came to write the story, about living with a stutter, and about writing in general. It was filled with the kind of details that make my writers brain start whirring and clicking with questions and ideas, and now I need to tackle a character with a speech impediment this year just to explore that mind set and the effects it can have on your life.

Okay, It's clobberin' time.

(And yes, by 'clobberin' I may also mean 'swearing.')

Some days you just want to play nice and have intelligent conversations. Those days are fun and all, but on the better days something is stuck in your paw and you want to tell the world. Whilst listening to the interview with Mr Seidler I scanned back through the list of previous podcasts. I noticed one that I'd forgotten about, for the film NEVER LET ME GO. Again, a very interesting interview, full of questions about exposition and character and structure. One thing in particular though gave me a nervous tick.

The producer of the film is quite a famous novelist. He had a very big hit a while back and I think everybody and their mum has read it, and seen the film adaptation starring mr grumpy face DiCaprio. This is all a long way round of saying I don't think it would be fair to name Alex Garland here. One of the questions he's asked during the interview is if he'll write more novels and he says, no, he only wrote novels because he couldn't make movies, and now he can make movies.

I guess the pragmatic thing is to say, well done. It would be to recognise that he saw books as a means to an end, and he got where he wanted to be, so it worked out for him. Sure, there's logic in that.

And maybe I'm the only one who's back goes up at this kind of thinking.

It's not just a novel thing either. As a comic-book fan I see plenty of people cashing in -there are a couple of high profile examples- and producing a comic simply by way of getting a film deal. They're easy to spot; some high concept idea that's wafer thin, one or two issues of a series or mini series appear, then it all goes silent while they work on the megabucks movie.

It all seems to flow in the one direction. There are people who write books in order to write films. There are people who write comics in order to write films. There are probably people who write parking tickets in order to write films.

I get that we all have mortgages or bills to pay. And, shit, that ransom isn't going to raise itself. But is money all it's about, or is there some deeper issue that drives the race toward the screen?

Just to be clear, obviously I'm not against movies. I love movies. I'm the guy who writes love letters to Raiders Of The Lost Ark and quotes Chinatown like a bible. In the DSD tree house i'm often throwing around screenplay ideas with other folks back here, and looking at what ideas we could make work. I was a film student, and someday I'd like to take another crack at writing one. But if you want to write a movie, here's my brainwave suggestion; Write a damn screenplay.

Maybe it'll sell and you'll make millions. Maybe it'll sell and never get made. Maybe it won't sell and you'll have a brand new draught excluder and that wonderful mixed feeling of achievement and shame. But you'll have done it.

Each different medium has it's own craft. They all have some common ground, sure, but one shouldn't be the convenient stepping stone to another. Something I've been working on with a couple of friends is a pitch that could be a TV show, it could be a novel, it could be a film, it could be a series of ebooks. Part of the fun from my end is getting knee deep in the story and the character and seeing all the different forms it could take, and which one fits the story better. There's also the thrill of this new age, of finding if there's a new way of telling a story to add to the list, of modern technology is blurring the lines between the old boundaries. But it's about the story, and it's about the craft.

The world keeps opening up new avenues. In the modern age there's no reason that anybody should stick to one medium like a monk, we can try a bit of everything. But again surely it should always be about the story first? And none of the different branches of this big ol' media tree should be any better than any other.

Except that we have a world that does just that. If you want something to be successful, you need to have it be a film. Unless hollywood points its golden finger in your direction then you just aint it.

And again, to be clear, I'm not railing against adaptations. I don't always see the point in them, but I also thing that If a writer has worked hard on their story and written the best comic/novel/parking ticket that they can, then there's nothing wrong with letting someone turn that into the best movie that they can. Because you've already done the work, and because you'll keep on doing the work.

And you can move between the two. Both Richard Price and George Pelecanos have shifted gears a few times between the different formats, and they've enriched their work because of it. Would pre-Hollywood Price have written CLOCKERS or LUSH LIFE? Would Pelecanos have delivered a novel as brilliant as DRAMA CITY if he hadn't spent some time wiring it up? And yet it's also key to notice that they came back and did those works.

If you have a film in you, write a screenplay. If you have a novel in you, write a manuscript. If you have an album in you, go on a reality TV show. But don't treat one as a convenient route to another. Don't decide to slum it in one simply to abandon it when it's served a purpose.

If you have a story, then find out which format that story needs to be told in, and go for it. In the words of Randall Graves, "don't pine for one but fuck the other."

Monday, January 10, 2011

Publishing Is Dead, Again

"Gia danced around a little, shaking her peaches for show. She shook it hard. Too hard. In the middle of a shimmy, her stomach cramped. A fart slipped out. A loud one. And stinky."  -- James Joyce, Ulysses

By Steve Weddle

People of Earth: Quick. Stuff your tweed jackets with the Great Literature -- Tropic of Cancer, Yevgeniy Onegin, Mrs. Dalloway -- you've left undusted on your IKEA shelves and head for the hills.

The publishing world is collapsing. Gnash your dentures. Wet your adult diapers. Reverse your mortgages!!

Some people you've never heard of in Alabama are taking a word out of a public domain book. I KNOW!! To quote Marlon Brando in Martin Sheen's novel, Apocalypse Darkness, "The Horror!!"

If they take the N-word out of Huck Finn, will racism come back?

Worse than that, a wacky person on the TV has her name on a book. (Orange you gonna say "bananas"?)

The sky is falling. Sanctity of the novel. Blah blah blah.

Chillax, folks. They aren't taking your precious Huckleberry Finn from the shelves to replace it with the N-word/I-word free copy. And they aren't replacing that crapass Middlemarch or anything Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote with Snooki's book. Oh, if only they would. Honestly, "Young Goodman Brown"? Allegory? Holy crap. See, his name is "Brown." Not white for good. Not black for evil. See, Faith's ribbons are pink. Not red for passion. Not white for innocence. See, her name is "Faith." See, his name is "Goodman." Which means "good man." You'd have to lobotomize an unwatered fern to find a dimmer book. Or, you know, visit the set of a reality show.

Could I find redeeming qualities in Snooki's book? Sure. Could I work it into a lesson or two about current literary tastes? Heck, yeah. I'm not, though, because I ain't on the clock.

I've seen that done, though. When I taught college, one professor devoted 10 percent of the final grade to students' bringing in a contemporary song and discussing the lyrics as poetry. That was one of those classes in which the kids who showed up got an "A," while the kids who didn't show up got an "A-." (Yes, and I've seen great classes and great professors and everyone farts flowers, so whatever.)

Some folks took a couple of words out of a public domain book. Honestly. Big friggin whoop. You want to take words out? Fine. Here it is. Some dude already took the N-word out and replaced it with "hipster." You can buy it on Lulu for about $16, I think.

Honestly, it ain't that big a deal. Folks take the Jane Austen books and throw in vampires or zombies. Did everyone get pissed about that? No. Oh, but that was fun. It added something to the original. Adding zombies was a satirical parody of our hermeneutic [insert French word]-fraude. Feh. I didn't read the zombie version, either. (I did see the BBC P&P with Ms Ehle and Mr Firth and found it quite lovely. The father cracks me up.)

And Snooki's book? Either it sells or it doesn't. They gave her $3.5 million for an advance? Well, that seems like an oompaloompa load of cash, doesn't it? And why did they give her this money? Why did they sign her to the deal? Because they think they can make money on the deal. This is business.

Why has no one bought my 156,000-word space opera? Are they afraid of my one-armed, hermaphrodite, yodeling Jesuit priest with a slight lisp and a penchant for juggling? At first, that's what I thought it was. Then, as I re-read one of the scenes -- the one in which Hermunculus the transgendered monkey learns to power the intergalatic transport machine by pouring liquified goat feces down the shaved back of the priest's blind man servant -- I began to wonder if perhaps the book isn't that good. I mean, the entire first three books of the series (of which there are 17 so far and 13 more planned) take place during Pseudo-Normalous Prijantian ritual. (You'd have to have been on the Campaigns of Elder World with me and my college roommates to understand, but it's friggin awesome.) So this space opera isn't for everyone. Maybe the publishers think they can't make money on it. If they thought they could make their money back, they would certainly buy my books. It's a business, right?

The problem is, of course, that they don't always get everything right. Remember a couple of years ago when  whatever house it was had to get rid of folks because Dan Brown was late with a book? They'd written their budget counting on the uptick in revenue coming in a certain quarter. When he was late, well, they had to cut expenses. Couldn't afford those folks. I remember NPR and the NYT book folks going on and on about it. To me, that's a more serious concern. Budgeting. Because that shit is serious. If you're planning on revenue, if you're so nailed down that one late book is going to force you to shitcan a bunch of folks, you've got some problems in how you make a budget. But you know what? They'd basically planned on hiring Christmas help for a season, right? Then Christmas came late. Big, fat lump of coal. But that's what happens. It's a business, right?

Publishers invest in books because they think they can make the money back. It's business.

For some reason, folks still think of books as works of beautiful art. Yeah, some are. BUY THOSE BOOKS. I read Out Stealing Horses and thought it was magnificent. I have no friggin clue how it got published. Some old dude is in his cabin for a couple of hundred pages and remembers when he was a kid and some kinda interesting stuff happened. But it was great. Won awards. Did they make back their money? Heck if I know. I hope so.

Are they making their money back on James Patterson? John Grisham? Jodi Picoult? Er, yeah. I'd bet they are. See, if they make their money on Patterson, they have money to give me, right? That's one argument. The other is that if they give all their money to Picoult, they don't have any left to buy my space opera.

But this is a business. Book publishing has to make money. Big House Publishing doesn't owe me a damn thing. If they want to spend their profits on a Snooki cookbook, they can do that. And if I want to spend my money on Per Petterson, then I will. Or if I want to spend zero dollars and just load up my Kindle with Mark Twain and Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, then I'll do that.

So when Janet Evanovich gets $50-million for her next books and Snooki gets $3.5 million for Jersey Whore, we can (oh, sorry. Jersey Shore Thing). OK. Where was I? Ah, yeah. Sticking up for publishers. Wait, why would I do that? Where's my check?

Buy books you like. Buy two copies. Buy from Tyrus. Mulholland. Minotaur. New Pulp Press. Night Shade. Akashic. [EDIT: And Switchblade. Thanks, Michelle.] (And whoever is still considering my space opera.) Any number of publishers that are doing good things.

Buy authors you like. Buy multiple copies. Saturday's Child from Ray Banks is Under. Two. Bucks. I just bought a handful of copies. Yeah, I know. Big spender. But lemme tell you this. Comment on this post and I'll randomly pick someone and send them a copy. Maybe I'll pick a couple. Then you'll love Cal Innes and buy more books. Spread the word.

And shop at stores you like and tell them what you want. I live fairly close to Richmond, so Fountain is my favorite indie. Find yours. Tell them what you want. Tell them what you hate. And, if they're good, they'll tell you what else you might like and hate.

You don't like the new Huck Finn? Don't buy it.

You don't like the book by that Jersey trollop, don't read it. Read the Trollope from the UK. I hear his stuff is free.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Communication vs. information - how the written word can work against you.

by: Joelle Charbonneau

News flash – publishing moves slow.

Ha! Yeah, probably not a news flash to anyone. But truth be told, the publishing submission process used to be even slower. Hard to believe, right? Well, thanks to the power of e-mail, the submission process is much faster than it once was. Not all editors or agents take electronic submissions, but the ones that do make our lives as writers so much easier. No longer do we have to print out query letters and pay for postage (both ways) in order to get a rejection or a request for additional material. And even better, if an agent or editor wants to see the entire manuscript we don’t have to kill a tree, stuff it in an envelope, pay the postage and hope against hope the US Postal service or the administrative assistant at the publisher/agency doesn’t lose the damn thing.

Hurray for technology.

However, there a couple of negatives as a result of the faster process. Rejections can be sent as early as three minutes after sending the e-query. (Yes, this happened to me.) Also, because e-mail is such an easy and informal a process (you don’t have to get out of your Cheetos-stained pajamas and drag your ass to the post office) people tend to be less aware of the words they chose in those e-mails. There is a danger to forget that how we intend to say something and how the actual words on the page can be interpreted by the recipient is often very different. More than once I’ve had someone dash off an e-mail to me intending to sound cheerful when in reality they sound surly. I bet you’ve had the same experience. If we know the person we can brush off the negative saying “Oh, I know they didn’t mean it that way.” However, an unknown publishing industry professional isn’t going to be quite so forgiving of that same mistake.

E-mail is a wonderful thing because of its ability to get information from one place to another very quickly. However, information is very different than communication. Information is cut and dried – when, where, how much. Communication is the meeting of minds and is more than the sum of the words on the page.

Writers should be fabulous at this. We all know that a character can say the same information in a variety of different ways each evoking a different emotion or spinning the story in a slightly different way. But the casual nature of e-mail makes it very easy for writers to forget they are writing – that the joking tone of voice isn’t described in the e-mail so the message can come across as arrogant instead of humorous – belligerent instead of inquisitive. Yeah – those are the kinds of things that can torpedo a writer’s chances at a career.

So why am I pointing this out today?

Well, I guess because this is a new year filled with resolutions for doing things better, smarter and stronger. Perhaps you are an unpublished writer who has resolved to land that editor or agent this year. You might be a published author who had decided 2011 is the year your career is going to go to the next level. Or maybe --- well the resolutions involving the written word are endless. Whether you have made a resolution or not, I am hoping you will join with me in resolving this year to make sure your communication skills are the strongest and smartest they can absolutely be. Who knows, maybe if we communicate better our little corner of the world will be a better place for it.